Lucy(9/6/2014)

During the 90s one of the biggest names in action filmmaking was Luc Besson, the French director who gave us La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element.  I wouldn’t say he was ever a truly great filmmaker and all of his movies had certain flaws, but they all brought a certain French weirdness that differentiated them from other action movies.  Then sometime in the late 90s Besson put his directorial career on hold and focused his efforts towards becoming a mogul.  His company, EuropaCorp, has found great success by fostering a roster of younger French action directors who make two types of movies: bad French blockbusters made for the domestic market and mid-budget English language action movies that are indistinguishable from Hollywood films to those who aren’t in the know.  As a producer he’s given us quite a few decent but unexceptional films like The Transporter and Taken which mostly serve as a reminder that the French are just as capable of making trashy nonsense as anyone.  Recently though Besson seems to have regained some interest in sitting in the director’s chair and his latest film, Lucy, has become something of a sleeper comeback film for the guy.

The film opens in Taipei where we see an American ex-pat named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) having an argument with her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek), who wants her to do him a favor and deliver a briefcase to a building for him.  Suspicious of his motives, she’s reluctant to do this, but is forced to when he handcuffs the case to her arm and informs her that the only key is inside the building.  She soon comes to learn that this case was intended for a Korean crime boss named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), who proceeds to kill Richard and more or less kidnap Lucy.  The case was filled with four bags of a blue crystalized drug, an experimental synthetic form of a hormone called CPH4, and Jang intends to use Lucy and three other poor saps as drug mules to take these packages around the world.  However, something goes wrong and the package sowed into Lucy’s stomach breaks, giving her a large dose of this drug and altering her mind.  Suddenly Lucy starts to gain immense intellectual and telepathic powers.  She comes to realize that only a man named Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) may be able to understand what’s happening to her, so she goes to Paris to seek him out but with Jang in hot pursuit.

There’s a fine line between insultingly stupid and endearingly insane, and Lucy is a movie that straddles that fine line for much of its short 88 minute runtime.  If the movie has one borderline-unforgivable weakness it’s that it bases its high concept in some of the most shameless pseudoscience imaginable.  It pulls out the same ridiculous “what would happen if you could use more than 10% of your brain” line that the lackluster 2011 thriller Limitless tried to use, but makes it all the more galling by putting the sentiment into the mouth of an actual scientist and throwing in other made up crap like the suggestion that dolphin echolocation is the result of an ability on the part of the aquatic mammals to use 20% of their brain… which would suggests that bats are similarly ingenious creatures.  It’s possible to make a good movie out of similarly precarious notions but usually such films work hard to draw your attention away from the non-sense, this movie doesn’t do that, in fact it kind of dwells on its dumb ideas and kind of leans into them by having Morgan Freeman’s professor character pontificate upon them.

So, yeah, this movie is dumb as a bag of rocks… so why did I still have a decent amount of fun while watching it.  Well, it’s probably because it’s made with a certain insane ambition that vastly exceeds the reality of what the movie’s place is supposed to be.  Luc Besson is not content to merely be a movie about a chick who gains powers and then uses them to kick some ass (although it certainly is that as well), he also wants to make the film a 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque exploration of humanity taking the next step in human evolution.  Throughout the film he cuts to a lot of stock nature footage as a means of tying the onscreen action to the chaos of animals operating within nature and then contrasting this to the next level of consciousness that Lucy starts to achieve later in the film.  Then later the film makes the most unexpected use of a dinosaur in a film since The Tree of Life.

Those uninterested in the next stage of human evolution will still find some action sequences and effects to enjoy in Lucy.   The film is, in practice, almost like a live-remake of the seminal anime Akira and like that movie it features a lot of wild telepathic effects that occasionally take the form of straight-up body horror, but more often just lead to Lucy straight-up dominating people with her powers.  In fact, if this movie has any real flaw as a popcorn movie it’s that Lucy is a little too overpowering in it.  It’s pretty clear around the time she manages to down an entire room full of people that these gangsters who are chasing her around are really no match for Lucy at all and it’s only through sheer contrivance that they haven’t already all been massacred by the third act.  Instead this becomes one of those movies where the question isn’t so much “is our hero going to get out of this” as much as it is “how fantastical and violent is the solution to this going to be.”

When Lucy opened at number one it was celebrated in a number of think-pieces for “proving” that a woman could successfully open an action movie.  This response seemed strange to me, firstly because it greatly exaggerated how hard it is to displace a horrible Brett Ratner helmed Hercules movie and secondly because it displayed a certain degree of amnesia.  Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, and Milla Jovovich had been opening trashy action movie years before Lucy came along, and what’s more the character of Lucy is not tremendously progressive.  She’s a depicted as a fairly uninteresting and unexceptional person who just happens to have greatness flung upon her, pretty much through magic.  This movie is not a benchmark for much of anything, but it can be fun if you’re willing to forgive a lot.  At the end of the day it’s a series of cool scenes and images desperately searching for a better high concept to bring them all together.  If Besson had just found a better reason for all this than the “more than 10% of your brain” drug, he might have really had something here.  As it is, this is a movie with the dubious charm of a scientific manifesto that’s been written with great conviction by someone who doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

**1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 8/22/2014

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (8/5/2014)

This is a theatrical film based on the television character that made Steve Coogan a star in Britain. Leading up to its release I actually tried to catch up on some of the Alan Partridge TV shows, but didn’t see all of them and wouldn’t call myself an expert. Basically, Partridge is an egotistical and out of touch radio/TV personality. His various projects tend to fail miserably and deservedly so, but for all his unlikable qualities there is something kind of endearing about the way he keeps on trying. In this film version partridge finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation after one of his fellow radio hosts (Colm Meaney) is fired and comes back to the station with a shotgun. Because Partridge is of a similar generation, this gun toting nut trusts him, meaning Partridge must be responsible for helping to negotiate for the hostages safety. Of course being the asshole that he is, Partrige views this as an opportunity to raise his own public profile. This hostage situation is a good set-up to bring the worst out of this character, and it also provides a good medium to make some decent points about the over-corporatization of culture. However, I can’t say I found this movie to be as funny as I feel like I should have. There were plenty of lines that certainly seemed clever and which I could intellectually identify as “funny,” but I just wasn’t laughing. Maybe it would have worked better for me if I was watching with an audience, but overall it really just never quite worked for me.

**1/2 out of Four

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (8/7/2014)

One of the more popular breeds of documentary as of late has been what I call “the profile movie.”  These are movies that follow around a notable person for a few weeks during their daily routine and then intercut that with archive footage from their past and interviews both from the subject and their admirers talking about said subjects life and legacy.  One of the best of these was the film Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, and given that this was another profile movie about an old show-buisiness lady who swears a lot I felt like it would have a similar appeal.  I should probably note that I have almost zero familiarity with the work of Elaine Stritch (or any other Broadway actor for that matter), in fact I hadn’t even heard of her by name until it was reported that she’d died earlier this year.  Seeing her here I certainly thought she was an interesting figure and it was fun to watch her act as a public figure well into her 80s, but I can’t say that it gave me much appreciation for her work as an actress.  In fact, the movie seems to suggest that her success had more to do with her professionalism and her force of personality than with any real talent or craft.  Of course that likely isn’t true, but the film doesn’t do much to argue otherwise and generally seems to be made for audiences that are already convinced of her legendary status.

*** out of Four

Like Father, Like Son (8/9/2014)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son has a very basic and seemingly classic set-up: a family comes to learn that their six year old son is in fact not their own and that he was switched at birth with another family’s child. I find it really hard to believe that this scenario hasn’t been done as a film before, and yet I can’t really pinpoint another straightforward drama that’s really done it before. The film made a pretty big splash at Cannes and is one of a string of well-regarded films from Kore-eda (a director whose work I have not yet really familiarized myself with). The film is shot and performed with a lot of class, but I found myself a little distanced from the material. The way these characters handle this situation just seemed a little odd to me. If I were in their shoes I would probably just say “you keep the kid you’ve been raising, I’m keeping the kid I’ve been raising, and I’m going to try to forget I ever heard this revelation” but the characters here actually consider and attempt to swap the children, which is something I just cannot relate to. Otherwise I respected but was never wowed by the film, it doesn’t play many false notes at all but never really tries to be more than the respectable melodrama that it is.

*** out of Four

Particle Fever (8/14/2014)

The first and last thing most people heard about the Large Hadron Collider was that there was supposedly some chance that it could open up a black hole and destroy the world.  This was of course ridiculous, but it says something about how poorly this monumental experiment was publicized that such silliness could completely overshadow the massive scientific discoveries the Collider was providing.  I never understood it either until now, as it’s all really well explained by the new documentary Particle Fever, which successfully manages to explain the science behind the Collider and paint a portrait of the human struggle involved in its creation.  Let’s start with the science.  The film uses some graphics to illustrate the various theories, but it doesn’t lean on them and the film never feels like it’s just an episode of “Nova.”  Instead it mostly relies on its subjects’ dialog to convey most of the difficult concepts and you can tell that they have a lot of practice at doing so.  As for the human story; the film has chosen which scientists to follow very well and also sets up the stakes that each of them have in the project.  The film perfectly conveys their passion for knowledge and also has some fun with their geekier personality quirks without ever seeming disrespectful.  Everything just seems to have come together perfectly for this project.  It doesn’t necessarily do anything revolutionary with the documentary form, and yet it executes on the traditional tools of the medium in a way the feels very fresh and interesting.

**** out of Four

Noah (8/22/2014)

Now that the rights to every major superhero have been snatched up and the whole fairy-tale action movie thing is kind of winding down Hollywood is looking for a new source for branded special effects movies and they seem to have settled on bible stories.  From my perspective this is not a good thing because, frankly, I’m a staunch atheist and I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid having all this stuff shoved in my face.  I get that religion is a part of the human experience that’s worth exploring, but all the same I’ve developed something of a knee-jerk negative response to positive depictions of faith.  I’m sure that the devoutly religious among us have a similarly strong disinterest in hearing anti-religious screeds as well, so I don’t feel too guilty about this.  So, when a great filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky makes a high profile biblical epic like Noah I’m left with something of a dilemma: do I swallow my pride and give money to its box office or do I stubbornly refuse to see it?  In this case I’ve split the difference and just waited until it hit blu-ray.

 

Fortunately I don’t think director Aronofsky is all that interested in preaching “the word” to people.  Rather he seems to approach the bible as a sort of fantasy/mythological text of the Homeric variety rather than as the word of God.  The film is set in a fairly oddly drawn vision of a pre-historic world filled with Canaanites and rock monsters.  The film has no interest in trying to explain or defend some of the more ridiculous elements of the story like fitting all these animals on a boat and keeping them well behaved.  It also doesn’t seem to concerned with some of the logical inconsistencies like why a world destroying genocidal deity needs to bother with a flood and human assistance when he should be able to just snap his fingers and have all the humans disappear.  The highlight of the film is probably Russell Crowe’s performance as a tough and driven Noah.  Aronofsky also has a handful of cool visual ideas, but I can’t say that the whole film was really the feast for the eyes that it probably needed to be.  Aronofsky tries, but I don’t think his epic grandiosity is really where his skillset lies.  He’s better at making these gritty personal stories and he doesn’t really have the eye of a James Cameron or Ridley Scott.  I was interested by Noah, but I never really connected with the story or the vision and I’m kind of glad Aronofsky got it out of his system and look forward to what he does next.

*** out of Four 

Crash Course: Contemporary Chilean Cinema

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

Great movies can emerge from any place at any time, but let’s be honest, pretty much the only countries that have really consistently been home to world’s best cinema throughout the history of the medium have been the United States, France, maybe Italy, possibly the United Kingdom and perhaps Sweden if you’re being generous. Elsewhere, truly relevant cinema tends to emerge in bursts and waves. Japan was a dominant force in the 50s and 60s but fell into a rut after that, Germany was a titan during the silent era but fell after the Second World War and perhaps re-emerged in the 70s, Hong Kong was a hotspot in the 90s, and various other countries had what could be termed “new waves” at one point or other during their history. Today the countries that  cinema watchers are eyeing the most closely are probably South Korea and Romania, but in the last couple of years I feel like I’ve been seeing another contender rise in the form of Chile. There hasn’t necessarily been a world conquering magnum opus like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days out of the country yet and they haven’t had a major popular hit like Oldboy either, but for whatever reason they seem to be making things happen on the festival circuit in a way that their South American peers haven’t been and I wanted to take a look at what was going on down there.

Tony Manero (2008)

Chile’s biggest international hit to date is most likely the 2012/2013 film No, which became the nation’s first film to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. I reviewed that film when it first came out stateside and my estimation of it mostly rose in the ensuing months and weeks. It eventually made my top ten list last year and made me want to further investigate the works of its director Pablo Larraín, who is important both as one of the country’s most successful directors and as the producer on two of the other three films I plan to look at. Larraín was born in 1976, the son of two influential politicians within the conservative Pinochet-allied Independent Democrat Union party. Though he has largely rejected his family’s politics, it seems like his upbringing has made Larraín more keenly interested in his country’s history under Pinochet than his colleagues seem to be as all three of his major films have been set during that turbulent regime. In the case of this film, that connection may be more of a quirk of timing, but Larraín does not ignore the political backdrop of the film’s time.

Set in the late 70s, this film looks at a rather frightening man named Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), who has developed a rather dangerous obsession with the character of Tony Manero from the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. While it is that John Travolta film that is name-checked throughout the movie, the story much more closely resembles another late 70s American film: Taxi Driver. Both films deal with dangerous loners who are prone to explode into violent rages, but the key difference is that Travis Bickle (while certainly not a paragon of mental health at the films beginning) only slowly built his mania over the course of Scorsese’s movie, Raúl Peralta is already so far gone at the beginning of Tony Manero that you really never get too clear of an idea what initially sent him down this path. As such, this was a bit of a disappointment as a psychological portrait and I’m also surprised that the film never really seemed interested in linking Peralta’s erratic behavior with the misogynistic attitude or the Manero character.

In fact I don’t really think Saturday Night Fever itself holds that much relevance to the story beyond the fact that it just happened to be the film this character latched onto, it probably could have just as easily have been Star Wars or some other bit of popular culture from the era. I suspect that Larraín may have in fact been trying to make some larger point about American culture being used as an opiate to distract the masses during a time of political unrest, but it that’s the point then it’s a subtle one and one that seems largely unrelated to his main character’s psychopathic urges. I also wasn’t too thrilled with the film’s hand-held cinematography that mostly looked cheap rather than stylish. I still definitely have faith in Pablo Larraín as a filmmaker and look forward to seeing his second film (2010’s Post Mortum) but this film didn’t work nearly as well for me as No.

**1/2 out of Four

The Maid (2009)

While Tony Manero has come to gather something of a following in light of the director’s further success, it didn’t really have all that much success on the international film market. What I remember really being the first Chilean film to really get noticed abroad was the 2009 Sebastián Silva film The Maid, which won Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and managed to get a modest though noticeable arthouse release in the United States. The film deals with class issues in Santiago by examining the life of a maid named Raquel who has been living with and working for a wealthy Santiago family for over two decades but has come to be very unhappy. In fact she’s been displaying some rather peculiar behavior and has been having dizzy spells, and this has led the family to seek out an additional maid to assist her, a move that Raquel resents passionately.

This is not the easiest film to talk about without spoiling, in part because much of its charm comes from the way that it subverts viewer expectations. Early on you’re pretty clearly led to believe that this maid is more than a little bit unhinged and throughout the film you’re expecting this all to build toward some kind of violent finale. The twist, however, is that there is no twist. Raquel is certainly unhinged but she isn’t a psychopath and when her problems are finally (mostly) resolved peacefully through some simple friendship and empathy on the part of one of the maids hired to assist her, you sort of start to feel foolish for having thought the worst of her earlier.

So, rather than becoming a yuppie-horror film in the vein of something like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle this actually proves to be an examination of class structures and dehumanization. Between Raquel and the various assistant maids we start to see representatives of the many types of people who could potentially become domestic servants: people who take an unhealthy pride in their work, people who are overly cynical and detached about their role, young immigrants just trying to start fresh, and finally the rare person who does manage to keep perspective and do work like this in a healthy way.

That said, The Maid is not a pretty film; it was made on what appear to have been consumer grade digital cameras from back when digital photography still looked kind of terrible. I also would say that Silva probably could have still added a little more visual flair in spite of his clear budgetary limitations and I’d say that some of the supporting performances are better than others. Still, this is a very interesting and successful movie in spite of its limitations, mainly because it gives a voice to those who generally aren’t given much of a voice and doesn’t turn them into simplistic martyrs. Since making the film Sebastián Silva, who is also a musician and at one point tried making it in Hollywood, seems to have continued to have a strong career and recently completed a pair of films with Michael Cera called Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy which were both well received at Sundance.

*** out of Four

Young & Wild (2012)

Cinema has had a lot of trouble telling stories about women, and this has made for a lot of blogging and think piece writing over the last couple of years, which is why I’m a little surprised that this film from just a couple of years ago didn’t get more attention. Not only is this a movie about a female, but it’s a serious examination of a teenage girl and boldly tackles said girl’s views on sexuality. Not only that, it also tackles her bisexuality and the way that her evangelical Christian upbringing and her online life plays into both of these themes. If that’s not a potent brew of contemporary subject-matter I don’t know what is. And yet, the film didn’t really ever get U.S. distribution despite winning a fairly prominent award at Sundance (which, oddly enough given its very domestic focus, seems to be the festival leading the charge in Chilean cinema’s recent upswing in international attention).

The film follows a teenage girl who was raised by a pair of evangelical fundamentalists (who are minorities in this predominantly Catholic country). As the movie opens this girl is already pretty actively rebelling against her parents and has secretly started a web-blog under the name Young&Wild where she talks about her religious doubts and sexual exploits with other young people who feel the same way. It’s never entirely clear how many of her sexual feelings are genuine desires, how many are done out of sheer rebellion, or whether that’s a valid distinction to make in the first place. To be clear, this is not a movie for the prudish, we definitely see this girl “getting it on” a few time and there are at least two erect penis shots that would have most likely earned the film an NC-17 rating if it had been submitted to the MPAA. However, none of the material seems gratuitous and is clearly central to the story at hand, so it never seems as uncomfortable as it might have given the age of the characters.

This film is probably the most technically accomplished of the three Chilean films I’ve looked at for this series… in fact it might be a little too technically accomplished for its own good. Director Marialy Rivas isn’t a complete rookie to filmmaking but I think this is her first feature length narrative film and it kind of shows. The movie has a few too many gimmicks running through it for its own good and it sometimes feels like Rivas is trying to draw with every one of the crayons in the box. Still, this is a movie that tackles some very difficult subject matter that doesn’t get tackled that often and does it in a fairly light, accessible, and mostly fun way that I mostly enjoyed watching. Hopefully Rivas next movie will get a wider audience because I do think she’s primed to make something particularly special after this.

***1/2 out of Four

Gloria (2013)

Of the four Chilean movies I’m examining here this is the most recent and also the one that saw the most financial success at the U.S. box office. That is of course not saying much as two of the other three barely got any distribution at all, and the one that did (The Maid) got into all of 19 theaters and grossed a little over $500,000. Gloria, by contrast seems like a blockbuster for having gotten onto 110 screens and making a little over two million dollars (which is only about $100,000 less than No made). The film also fared quite well with critics and was Chile’s Oscar submission in the foreign language film category (where it failed to earn a nomination against heavy competition from films like The Great Beauty).

So what helped the film rise above the competition? Well as far as box office is concerned, that probably has a lot to do with the fact that the bulk of the arthouse crowd is composed of people that you’d call “of advanced years.” In fact, if this were in English, had a little less sex, some slightly more attractive stars, and maybe one or two fewer jagged edges and this would probably fit pretty easily into the Nancy Meyers mold of autumn-autumn romance films. The movie follows a middle aged divorced woman named Gloria (Paulina García) and the relationship that emerges between her and a divorced man named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) that she met at a club. The relationship seems to be going well, except that Rodolfo is hesitant to introduce Gloria to his grown children even though she is more than willing to introduce him to her grown children.

The idea of taking an otherwise vanilla love story and somehow elevating it by making it more “real” and casting it with people who don’t have movie star looks is not really all that much of a new idea.  The film Marty did that way back in 1955 and won an Academy Award for its trouble.  It did not, however, lead to some new wave of movies that featured normal looking lower-middleclass people so it still seems like something of a bold move to do the same thing in 2013.  Just the same I kind of wanted more out of Gloria than what I got.  This is just a very basic story that’s told in a way that’s largely above average.  Paulina Garcia gives a pretty good performance as the title character but I wasn’t blown away by her work necessarily and wasn’t really blown away by the movie in general.  I kept waiting for some sort of twist or complication that would really bring it to the next level, but that never really came.  In general it just seems like a rather minor work and I’m surprised it did so much better than some of its Chilean peers.

*** out of Four